Voluble expressions of relief from across establishment Europe greeted the news that Emmanuel Macron had made it into the second round and was favourite to become President of France on 7 May. The newly minted newspaper editor George Osborne expressed pleasure about his ‘friend’s’ achievement. Perhaps the most unguarded statement came from David Miliband, the former Labour MP for South Shields: ‘Tremendous achievement by Emmanuel Macron. Bulwark against evil forces and tribune for modernisation in France and Europe’.
Macron is a classical early 21st century careerist. He has projected himself as standing for both the Left and the Right, liberalism and a powerful state, globalism and the welfare of the French people. Since 1789 France has had a political system in which a centralised state imposes whatever its agenda is on citizens without asking if they are happy with it or not. This Jacobin model has frequently run into trouble and from Louis Napoleon up to de Gaulle, ‘providential’ figures have been needed to prop it up it.
I observed the last week of the election mainly in the small southern city of Beziers. The café and bistro owners on the Gabriel Peri square across from the mairie (town hall) were too busy to dawdle over politics as the season picked up again. But several of them plainly had no time for the big shots in Paris who owned the buildings they were renting and charged them stringent sums.
Small property owners are behind much of the economic activity in the department of Herault whether it be shopkeepers, farmers, vineyard owners, or tourism entrepreneurs. The Friday morning flower market on the long tree-lined Allee Paul Ricard is a showcase for the efforts of small-scale enterprise. It is named after a dogged 17th century local man who persuaded the state in Paris to invest in a canal linking the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, the local section of which is known as the Canal du Midi.
With 31 per cent of the vote, the Front National’s Marine Le Pen was the clear winner in Beziers on 23 April. Jean-Luc Melenchon was a distant second on 20 per cent and Macron was in fourth place on 18 per cent. The electoral basis for a post-modern metropolitan world view centred on open borders and multiculturalism hardly exists in Beziers or indeed much of the Midi. There are few suburbs, civil servants, shopping malls or academic communities in the 100,000 strong town.
Its mayor since 2014 has an interesting back story. Robert Menard, is a former man of the far-left, a journalist who helped found Reporter sans Frontieres but who has now gone in a decidedly conservative direction like a string of much better-known French intellectuals. They are concerned with defending national culture not against Anglo-Saxons but against home-grown globalists. They, like their counterparts elsewhere in the West, are committed to creating a homogenous progressive order and are deaf to warnings that one of the primary beneficiaries of dissolving the nation state are militant Islamists.
Menard has set up a cultural hub in Beziers called Boulevard Voltaire, animated by concern to promote free discussion on the problems of modern France from terrorism, to the left behind parts of the country, and educational decay. He is better known for presiding over an upturn in the town’s fortunes since becoming mayor.
Three neighbourhoods in the city have been selected as ‘special intervention areas’. It means funds have been allocated from the centre for economic and social regeneration. The city has had a facelift. Its indoor market is being renovated, along with transport, parks and the Canal du Midi. Menard is a supporter but not a member of the FN. But despite his affiliations, he managed to extract more finding from the central bureaucracy last year after successfully arguing that the investment was helping to arrest the city’s decline.
For a city in crisis Beziers is unusual because much of the poverty is concentrated in the centre. People of North African origin are conspicuous and many of the children and young people are Maghrebi in origin. In a stay of 4 days it is hard to make a judgment on the state of social relations. But whatever tensions existed seemed low-key. However, street hold ups were rampant before he took office in 2014 and it was his promise to get serious about law and order that was instrumental in getting him elected. The number of police has risen from 30 to 85 and a police car was on the scene within minutes after a bag snatching incident which I witnessed in which the thief escaped but the stolen bag was recovered. A ban on spitting and an evening curfew for children was imposed, which brought harsh criticism.
Last year hate charges were filed against him when he was reported to say: “In a class in the city centre of my town, 91 per cent of the children are Muslims. Obviously, this is a problem. There are limits to tolerance. “French law prohibits any gathering of data based on people’s religious beliefs or ethnicity. Earlier, he had warned of the replacement of the country’s white and Christian population in parts of France by Muslims.
Such embattled language may stem from the fact that powerful foes of conservative France view the French culture as obsolete. They have become far more explicit advocates of ‘mondialisation’ than the Americans ever where. In Macron they may have a giddy, but ruthless champion prepared to repress advocates of French nationalism as thoroughly as republican regimes put down opposing views in the past.
Following the murder of the priest Jacques Hamel while celebrating mass in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray in the north of the country on 26 July last year, Menard renamed the square in front of the cathedral and looking down on the Canal du Midi in his honour.
Not all of his voters are, by any means likely to back some of his controversial moves but I gained the impression that much of the popularity he clearly enjoyed stemmed from his prowess on the economic front.
Improved conditions have persuaded retail outlets to start up again in the city. It is a contrast to the nearby city of Perpignan where I had earlier stayed which has an air of economic desolation that is perhaps masked by the fine weather and the location nearby of the Mediterranean. The historic quarters of both places are inhabited by disproportionately elderly people. As they die, it is clear that In Perpignan Mahgrebi origin people are moving in and a similar process may be occurring, albeit more slowly in Beziers.
France is divided now by go-ahead areas integrated into the global economy with hi-tech industries, prestigious educational establishments, and large state investments and a periphery where manufacturing industries, local crafts, and extractive industries have died out with nothing replacing them. With its fertile land and tourist appeal, the Midi is not quite in the forsaken category. But it voted solidly with Le Pen and is likely to do so in the deciding round.
In an interview on Monday, Menard acknowledged that people would have reservations about voting for Le Pen but it was time to ‘kick over the anthill’. He was disdainful of Macron and the latter’s speech to supporters on the night of 23 April was lacklustre, replete with cliches and delivered in a clunky manner.
Macron is sure to face stiff challenges if elected. Terrorism will be very hard to bring under control and his pro-EU stance will generate opposition if the entity continues to be run on terms that basically suit Germany’s economic needs. The politicians who will be quickly enlisted into a new Berlusconi-style party acting as his personal vehicle are likely to be even more careerist than those in the existing party blocs.
Macron has enormous self-belief and he may decide to vigorously crack down on defiant figures like Menard. To be sure, the French state can deal ruthlessly with politicians who threaten the status quo even in a mild way, as the centre-right presidential challenger Francois Fillon found with the hacking of his family’s confidential social security records stretching back over 30 years.
Armed soldiers patrolled outside Beziers town hall as people turned up to vote on Sunday. I detected much weariness, resignation and uncertainty among plenty of French people in and around Beziers. Many feel they have been tossed aside by an arrogant Paris elite pursuing far more disruptive and unwise policies than in previous epochs of French history.
La vie en rose is the motto here as spring has arrived, the tourists return, the beaches glisten in the sun, and the countryside is carpeted by flowers. But all is not well in this deceptively laid-back corner of the world and the election of a very uncompromising individual like Menard amply demonstrates that.
(Image: Blandine Le Cain)
Tom Gallagher is completing a novel entitled ‘England – to be continued’. An earlier book, ‘Scotland : A Warning to the World’ was published in 2016.